A Year in Reading: Jeff VanderMeer


As an omnivore, I define the word “enjoyment” as anything from a heady intellectual excitement at exposure to new ideas or narrative structures all the way to an uneasy/comfortable feeling that lives visceral in the gut and defies analysis. I’m not really interested in imposing my own idea of a good book on what I read—I want the book to imprint itself on me and take me over and change me.

I have left off most of thousand or so books I blurbed in 2017, believing their blurbification gave them an unfair advantage. However, I couldn’t resist including blurbed books by Leonora Carrington, Jac Jemc, and Quintan Ana Wikswo. (Since this is The Year of the Machado, I don’t think I need to draw your attention that way—if you haven’t read Her Body and Other Parties, what’s your problem?) I have also included a couple of 2016 titles that I first read this year.

As for regrets, my current to-read pile includes Clade by James Bradley, Compass by Mathias Énard, Camilla Grudova’s The Doll’s Alphabet, Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin, A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Chemistry by Weike Wang, and The Inner Lives of Animals by Peter Wohlleben. My regrets also include a half-dozen much-lauded titles that I would characterize as damp sparklers dressed up as a full fireworks display, but the less said about them the better.

Belladonna by Daša Drndić, translated by Celia Hawkesworth (New Directions) – I place this selection first, out of alphabetical order, because it was my favorite read of 2017 and one of my favorites of this decade. Using as her canvas the life of the elderly ex-psychologist and ex-author Andreas Ban, Belladonna unflinchingly explores the horrors of fascism in Croatia, the break-up of Yugoslavia, World War II crimes against humanity, and the absurdities of aging and of the modern era. Deftly diving into various periods of Ban’s life, Drndić’s accomplishment here is astonishing for several reasons. First, that what easily could be drifty, dreamy, and unfocused is so sharp, structured, and acerbic. Second, that she can deal so nakedly with atrocity and yet say something new and pin the offenders to the wall and somehow not become didactic in the negative sense of that word. To give just one example of the novel’s many strengths, Drndić in chronicling a trip made by Ban to Amsterdam observes of a particularly stupid example of recycling that “people are obedient, they like to separate their trash, to recycle the debris of their own and other people’s lives. Following a diktat, they fly to embrace goodness, which they shift around in their pockets the way men scratch their balls, then they sleep soundly.” Like much of Belladonna, the observation sends up modern life but also has relevance to the terrible history Drndić lays bare. The novel is multi-faceted, sharp, surprising, darkly and grimly hilarious, relevant to our times, and possesses limitless depth. It also bristles with intelligence and defiance in every paragraph, like an exceptionally erudite and alert porcupine. Belladonna deserves major awards consideration, and I don’t mean for “best translation,” although definitely that too—Hawkesworth’s work here is marvelous. (Curmudgeonly aside: Reviewers, please stop comparing authors to W.G. Sebald just because a novel includes a grainy black-and-white photo or two and pays attention to history.)

The Idiot by Elif Batuman (Penguin Press) – This first novel chronicling hilarious and sad misadventures on a college campus in 1995, and then in Hungary for a student work program, delights in large measure due to the unusual narrator and the exasperating relationship at the story’s core. Batuman has a talent for exposing the absurdity of how we conduct ourselves in the world and the ridiculousness of societal rituals. It’s a tribute to Batuman’s formidable magic tricks that although the novel fades a bit in the final fifth, I still enjoyed The Idiot more than almost anything I read in 2017.

The Gift by Barbara Browning (Coffee House) – An overlooked gem from the year, The Gift chronicles a woman’s journey through art and experience in the context of the Occupy movement, with observations about our modern attempts to form meaningful connection. As I wrote for Bookforum, “The Gift is unusual novel about the performance of life and the life of performance that tells us empathy and passion are deeply political, and that fiction that flips a finger to the boundary between storytelling and the body is an expression of hope and a way toward a different future. In so many ways, Browning’s creation is a beautiful meditation on art, and a balm for readers in these difficult times.”

The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington by Leonora Carrington (Dorothy) – The famous surrealist painter and contemporary of Max Ernst also wrote fiction, and this fiction bridged the gap between the surrealists and post-World War II fabulists. Her writings were a huge influence on Angela Carter, and likely allowed Carter to imagine a surrealism wedded to stronger cause-and-effect and something resembling a plot. In short, Carrington is essential to the history and evolution of 20th-century non-realist fiction. Stories like “The Debutante” and “White Rabbits” are strange and timeless and conjure up the universality of fairy tales while being thoroughly modern.

The Green Hand and Other Stories by Nicole Claveloux, text translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (NYBR Classics) – These heady, surreal, transgressive stories from a forgotten imaginative juggernaut in French comics feature talking vegetables, depressed birds, and imagery that will lodge deep in your subconscious. The art style is like some aggressive mash-up of R. Crumb, Moebius, and Jim Woodring, but utterly unique. Simultaneously beautiful and disturbing.

The Trespasser by Tana French (Viking) – My first experience with French’s fiction, The Trespasser is a layered, complex tale that includes the added frisson of the detective narrator’s justified “paranoia” that the murder squad is out to sabotage her because of her gender. The combination of a fascinating case, a deep dive into the history of the narrator’s colleagues, and the fraught relationship she has with her partner create something special. I’ve now read all of French’s novels and recommend everything she’s written. Her work has contributed greatly to my continuing education as a writer.

Houses of Ravicka by Renee Gladman (Dorothy) – Gladman continues her utterly marvelous tales of the imaginary Ravicka, this time focusing on the mystery of invisible houses that seem to experience spatial dislocation. The narrator pursues this mystery with an implacable logical illogic that is reminiscent less of Franz Kafka or Italo Calvino than of a fabulist J.G. Ballard. Time and space are compressed and expanded in ways that create beautiful glittering structures in the reader’s mind. By the end, your brain has new secret compartments, which will reveal themselves when least expected.

The End of My Career by Martha Grover (Perfect Day) – An utterly enthralling and sobering tragicomic memoir of job and life experience that showcases Grover’s perfect sense of pacing and her eye for the absurdities of life and of the institutions of the modern world. Highlights include the essay “Women’s Studies Major” and the title essay. Out from a press in Portland, Ore., this collection deserves a much wider audience.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead Books) – The author demonstrates the power of using a slight speculative element—mysterious doors used by people fleeing civil war to pass into Europe—to create a near-perfect novel about love, loss, and displacement. The novel’s most brilliant extrapolation is in not undermining the emotional resonance of the doors, and their effect on the main characters, with pointless explanation. Instead, Hamid creates a sensitive tapestry that comments on our current situation to devastating and beautiful effect.

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett (Tin House Books) – Set in Freedom, Ala., Hartnett’s novel is an exploration of a mother’s death and the lives of animals that manages to be both “funny and heart-breaking” while avoiding the cliché inherent in the bittersweet. The narrator, Elvis Barrett, is endearing and in some ways wise beyond her years—and certainly knows more facts about critters than the average person. Although dead when the novel opens, the mother’s character is vividly portrayed and the family dynamic rather beautifully rendered as well. This is the kind of book I try to resist as a noted curmudgeon, but with not a smidge more sentiment than needed, Rabbit Cake is an instant classic that you could confidently give as a gift to any reader.

Crawl Space by Jesse Jacobs (Koyama Press) – Jacobs’s 2014 Safari Honeymoon was a tour de force about contamination and containment, portraying in lush comic panels relationships between humans and the environment that were horrific, hilarious, and unique. Crawl Space, with its psychedelic chronicle of people discovering a hidden world behind mundane reality, warps and rewires the reader’s brain in ways more about control and damage, while exploring a genuinely unearthly ecosystem of creatures.

The Grip of It by Jac Jemc (FSG Originals) – An original ghost story is nearly impossible to write, but somehow Jemc manages to come very close. In part, her clever structure—alternating between the points of view of a husband and wife as they encounter horrors in their new house—helps achieve new effects. But the novel also demonstrates an uncanny knowledge of ghost story tropes in the answers it provides—and doesn’t provide. I found The Grip of It genuinely creepy, in a jaded context in which I’ve been marinating (almost literally, and much to the detriment of my internal organs) in weird fiction for decades.

The Answers by Catherine Lacey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – I love the conceit of Lacey’s second novel, which allows the author to tackle so much that is so relevant about relationships and power structures. A rich creative seeks to have his personal life so structured that different women perform different roles for him. The narrator of the first part of the novel, whose own life is fraught, is hired for one of the roles and from there Lacey pursues the idea about as far as it can go. The novel then opens up to include other points of view. The real genius of the novel is how the central conceit allows Lacey to structure scenes in ingenious ways, creating narrative drive and reader investment for what, on the face of it, might otherwise seem a purely intellectual exercise. The differences between The Answers and her wonderful first novel suggest that Lacey will continue to surprise and is unlikely to repeat herself.

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou, translated by Helen Stevenson (The New Press) – Author of the infamous African Psycho and Memoirs of a Porcupine, Mabanckou’s Black Moses is less formally inventive than prior translated works, and perhaps an easier entry point for readers unfamiliar with his fiction. But it is nonetheless riveting and powerful stuff, set in the 1970s and 1980s in Congo-Brazzaville. Tokumisa, whose full name means “Let us thank God, the Black Moses is born on the lands of the ancestors,” lives in an orphanage run by a jerk and abused by his fellows. Following his escape, Tokumisa joins a gang and thus begins a dark journey through a criminal underworld, with tragic consequences.

Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People by Timothy Morton (Verso Books) – Considered by many to be among the top philosophers in the world, especially among those tackling issues related to human effects on our environment, Morton herein provides an important, spirited, and sometimes frenetic analysis of the foundational assumptions of Marxism and other -isms with regard to nature and culture (whilst also wanting to redefine those terms). Morton makes a compelling case for how our existing ideologies must adapt or change radically to repatriate ourselves with a world in which we are entangled physically but which we have convinced ourselves we are estranged from, or stand apart from, in our minds. If that sounds wordy, it’s because this is a complex topic and Morton is better than I am at expressing complex concepts in ways that are useful to a layperson.

Sourdough by Robin Sloan (MCD/FSG) – This satire of the tech industry manages to be both sweet and savory, in telling the story of a woman who inherits the possibly sentient starter for a sourdough recipe. More fairy tale than incisive critique, Sourdough epitomizes the heart-warming story that isn’t saccharine and as such it’s a rare novel indeed in a landscape dominated by more weighty books. But lightness is much more difficult to pull off (without devolving into the trivial), and Sloan manages the magic trick handily.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (Wednesday Books ) – Like a relic from a simpler time, Smith’s novel, originally published in 1948, is a bit of a time capsule, but no less enjoyable for that reason. In charming and disarming prose, 16-year-old Cassandra Mortmain chronicles her family’s life in a crumbling castle. The place was bought by her father at the height of his literary success, but the death of their mother has given him writer’s block. Now they’re penniless and trying to eke out a spartan existence in their huge empty palace (complete with moat). Then Americans buy a neighboring farm and by extension become the Mortmain’s landlord, creating complications. All of the characters—from Cassandra’s siblings to her step-mom and her dad—are expertly drawn and the novel has lovely pacing and astute observation of human behavior.

My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci, translated by David Hackston (Pantheon) – By turns subtle and explicit, Statovci’s first novel focuses on the mysteries of a love story across two countries narrated by Bekim, a displaced Yugoslavian living in Finland with a boa constrictor as his sole companion. Investigating his mother’s life (and loves) brings him back to Kosovo, which he hasn’t seen since he was a young child, and the novel opens up to become a haunting and beautifully written exploration of identity, father-son relationships, and history. Did I mention that a sarcastic talking cat also figures prominently? I’ve never read anything quite like this novel, expertly translated, which draws equally on fabulist and realist influences to create a unique tale.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell (Riverhead Books) – If environmental pollution and climate change require new approaches to narrative, then Schweblin in Fever Dream has hit upon one potent approach. At the crossroads of the surreal and the real, her story about a dying woman and a boy who is not her son manages to convey the confusion and pain of the modern condition in a way I haven’t seen before. A short read, utterly riveting and poignant.

Stages of Rot by Linnea Sterte (PEOW) – This first graphic novel by a talented Swedish artist depicts an alternate Earth in which up is down and the small have become the mighty. From giant moths ridden by post-humans to orcas that cruise through the sky, Sterte up-ends the order of the natural world and in doing so makes that world more visible to us. The panels are largely wordless, the story told through the lifecycles and everyday existence of the fantastical creatures on display. The ecosystems she’s created are monstrous and magnificent.

Orgs: From Slime Molds to Silicon Valley and Beyond edited by Jenna Sutela (Garrett Publications) – This slim glossy expose of slime mold organization as applied to a (not always subtle) critique of capitalism is oddly charming and especially relevant in how it attempts to map organic systems to the human world. Diagrams and maps along with full-color photos of various weird slime-molds jostle for dominance along with fascinating main text that discusses “Sublime Management” and the biological metaphors inherent in corporate-speak. As a writer who tries to get beyond the human and is invested in exploration of soft tech like mushrooms, I found Orgs very interesting. However, I must point out that a supposedly progressive or leftist approach to the topic might have come in a more eco-friendly container: the glossy paper of this booklet stank of chemicals when I rescued it from the unnecessary shrink-wrap. (Thus, we all live with hypocrisy.)

Black Wave by Michelle Tea (Feminist Press) – This skillful, sui generis, and bawdy intertwining of climate change anxiety and queer feminism has no equal or parallel in my experience. Set in a future of impending environmental doom, Tea’s narrator attempts to carve out a life, career, and relationships in a crumbling San Francisco. In a series of brilliant and hilarious set-pieces, sex and drugs and gender issues figure prominently, but also a complex awareness of the precariousness of our modern times. Although the environmental movement has in some ways lagged behind on social justice issues, Tea demonstrates the value of non-cis-gendered voices in this space, and how deviating from predominantly straight white male experiences can radicalize and make new the whole idea of the apocalyptic or mid-apocalyptic novel. Messy, poignant, funny, sad, visionary—Black Wave is pretty much everything.

The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty (Amistad) – If everything is political and nothing about our foundational assumptions should remain unexamined, then The Cooking Gene helps hasten the process in an interesting direction, coming at racism, gender, and faith from a different vantage. Twitty’s thorough and thought-provoking book uses recipes for West African Brisket, among others, and trips to Civil War battlefields, synagogues (Twitty is Jewish), and plantations to tell the story of his family’s own personal history and the origins of Southern cooking. He also explores our relationship with animals, where our food really comes from, and how we’ve become disconnected from the natural world. Much of the history of food preparation he uncovers concerns survival and necessity. The author’s loss of his mother while writing the book adds a sadness but also a kind of strength.

A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be by Quintan Ana Wikswo (Stalking Horse Press) – Taking on all kinds of issues with regard to history and the marginalized, this deep and ultimately cathartic novel, replete with anchoring photographs by the author, chronicles the attempts of a midwife abandoned by her husband to establish a sanctuary for the downtrodden in a deserted plantation. This location, the secrets of the small town nearby, and the lives of those who seek sanctuary come together to create a powerful story about the damage of the past and the power of community. But, honestly, until you live within the intimacy of Wikswo’s prose, you can’t really understand A Long Curving Scar; it tends to defy summary.

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch (Harper) – This transformative and ecstatic retelling of the Joan of Arc story in a future dystopian setting of environmental collapse and fascism challenges the reader to confront the iniquities of the present day. This is a phantasmagorical literary opera full of dramatic moments but also quiet scenes of intense realism, and Yuknavitch has created a timely tale that is always disturbing and thought-provoking. Nor, as in some dystopias, does she neglect an searing examination of the role of animals in our lives. I also highly recommend her nonfiction book The Misfit’s Manifesto, released late in the year.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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More Stark Than Bleak: The Millions Interviews Richard House

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For me, the best read of 2014 was Richard House’s thousand-page hardcover The Kills. I traveled a lot last year and I lugged The Kills around with me everywhere, undaunted by the fact that it was not built for shoving into an airplane seat-back pocket. It was the tome I could not put down, and it captured me so utterly that I begged off meal invites and bar get-togethers to finish it. I resented gigs because if I was reading my own work I wasn’t reading The Kills.

The Kills begins with a classic set-up: embezzled money, predatory contractors, and illegal U.S. waste burning sites in the Iraqi desert. A character known as “Sutler” (not his real name) serves as the front for a much larger conspiracy. From the literal and figurative wreckage of secret machinations, the novel explodes outward, exploring every bit of shrapnel and collateral damage, every consequence of the initial corruption. As Sutler flees the scene, other characters come into focus and then disappear into the anonymity from whence they came. Identities are abandoned, replaced with new fictions and mythologies about the self. The soldiers in charge of the burn pit reappear in a different context later in the novel. A book about serial killers in Italy — based on real events? — permeates all four sections and influences decisions by the soldiers back in civilian life.

House gives the reader exactly what we need to know about each character and situation through deft shifting between points of view, but no more than that. The overall structure has immense power as a result, thwarting normal reader expectations while showing great respect for the reader’s imagination. Comparisons to Thomas Pynchon, John le Carré, and Roberto Bolaño apply, but really are only a way of letting readers know the general territory they’re about to traverse. In short, the novel is surprising and unique — and, in the end, cathartic.

Published in the U.K. in 2013, The Kills was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It’s been highly lauded, and House, an accomplished filmmaker, has created audio/video extras that further illuminate the story. I interviewed House recently via email to explore some of the ideas in The Kills.

Jeff VanderMeer: In what ways does fiction infiltrate history? And, as individuals, are we fated to turn life into a story of some kind, whether we mean to or not? Is this different for U.K. writers?

Richard House: There’s a cultural difference in what happens in the U.S., the U.K., and Europe — in how writers do and don’t directly address social issues. I don’t want to generalise, but I do think U.S. writers allow themselves a broader platform in terms of subject, and also in how they approach form. It’s engaged and also playful. I’ve a lot of respect for that.

On a more fundamental level we (as in a generic ‘we,’ not just writers) have bad habits when it comes to translating life into any kind of narrative. I think this is almost automatic — and I really want to resist this — the way that fictive structures begin to shape and command history. The sense that events have a beginning, a middle, and an end is pernicious. It’s so deep we rarely question it. For me it comes from the way I was taught at school, from the way the media shape events, and even from the way my parents and peers speak about the world. There’s an artificiality to all of these stories, because they are always complete, and lessons are always learned. There’s always a point. I find this notion of closure really dangerous and it works against my experience of the world, of history — there’s a sense of putting something away, of learning from it, and of trying to establish one dominant way of regard. As if what we go through has a design, so that something occurs in the world for the explicit purpose of teaching us something, or proving a point. I find this artificial and frightening. It’s a form of consumption. It’s also, essentially, lazy. That three-part structure oversimplifies everything. I dislike the transformation of life or events into a received three-part act with an intensity.

That said, I think fiction is a useful, perhaps the most useful, way to digest the world, to consider ideas and positions that you otherwise couldn’t enter so willingly or freely — and fiction, like all disciplines, has certain necessary defining structures, genre to genre. Plus, it’s almost impossible not to narrate the world in some way, which is all about finding your feet, I suppose. I prefer fiction which struggles with topical events and wrestles with how to tell them — and that often comes through the lens of a specific genre.

JV: I don’t think of you as an absurdist in the way Franz Kafka was, but there is a streak of the irrational running through The Kills that struck me as very true to the way the world works. Where does this come from? I’m curious about your personal entry point or observation platform.

RH: For me this is a structural thing also. I want to resist that desire to round off, to teach, to give across an explicit position. In fiction there’s enough space to allow a reader to construct their own story. That roughness, of one thing knocking into another, is for me, pretty much how the world works.

I’m 53 and too much of a pragmatist to be truly absurd (although I’ve a weakness for humour which tends toward the absurd). Experience very rarely matches expectation (usually a very good thing, sometimes just awful) because at any given time the story or event which you think will play out in certain way, just isn’t the same story or event to anyone else. Experience is always oddly articulated — seldom ever what you expect. Things collide. Our perspectives are intimately subjective, and therefore always skewed. The good thing is that we’re not alone in this. Everyone bumps along, one way or another, all at different speeds. Most of the time there’s a sense that this or that is under our control, but that can fluctuate in a nano-second depending on a million other things. This goes back to your first question, how the world as we speak about it isn’t really the world that we experience.

JV: Are there parts of the novel you meant to be darkly funny?

RH: Definitely. Some of the core ideas — like building a city in the middle of nowhere — are to me rich with potential. I try to level that darker stuff as it can dominate — more stark than bleak, I guess. I particularly enjoyed writing the sections with Rem in Iraq, it’s not that these sections are funny, so much, but I liked writing about how men congregate, socialise, wrestle for position. Similarly with characters like Rike and her sister, there’s a competition and friendship that I hope comes through with a little more lightness than in other sections. There’s a wryness to the German Berens also. I’ve known many people like that who seem to closely observe themselves. In person I’m a lot more affable than my writing probably indicates.

JV: The section entitled “The Kill” and set in Italy is, to me, the center of the novel thematically and it radiates out fictional affects that impact the real world. There’s a potential resonance or connection with the parts set in Iraq in the depictions of war-time life as well. Were there other, less obvious connections, you want the reader to make?

RH: As I worked on the main body of The Kills, the idea that there would be a separate story which would somehow refocus ideas and issues in the other books became useful. I was very particular that The Kills would show an occupation from the occupiers perspective — my father was in the military, and this was my experience of Malta, Cyprus, Germany, where we had very limited interaction with any local population. In the Naples story, I was able to look, in a small way, at the other side of an occupation, and by setting that in Europe, and referring to WWII, I could give a perspective to what an occupation could mean, one that most of us could readily follow. What was happening in Iraq was immediate, we could see it in the news as it happened. But it was also removed, in happening in some remote place about which we have no proper or developed understanding. Iraq is somewhere else, foreign, distant. It’s almost a rule of action, that every country in which we have a conflict (I’m specifically thinking of the U.K. here) becomes abstract, and in some way, lesser. This is exactly what happened in Naples in 1943. If you look at a place as a theatre for war, then it makes it easier for us not to consider the reality of what is happening. That makes the consequences very hard, very bitter — and long term. I think the third book, “The Kill,” was a way of looking at this from a different angle.

Almost every character is out of water, in some circumstance they can’t control, to which they have to adapt, change, react. In “The Kill” the characters are outside in some way, being foreign, unable to speak a language, a sex worker, gay, not that these are equitable positions in any way, but they each add a level of complication to how they manage in the world. The same fish out of water issue stands for [several other characters].

“The Kill” works from a basic proposition. Two brothers deciding “what if.” There’s no consideration of what might happen afterward. In fact, there’s some delight for these brothers in how they leave behind them as big a mess as possible. I don’t believe this was our intention in Iraq, but it is the effect. There’s something deliberate and wilful about breaking a country apart and in attempting to restructure it as a marketplace — particularly a country which largely worked on traditional models of kinship and association. We demolished a country, every structure was devalued, disassembled, and when we came to reassemble it, we just couldn’t manage. Parts of Europe underwent similar destruction, except our obligation to restructure — propelled by a fear of communism — was followed through — for good or bad.

JV: I’ve heard “The Kill” was written first. Did the rest accrete around that? How much exploration was there structurally for you?

RH: I wanted to write something like Leonardo Sciascia’s Equal Danger, a short book that starts out as a crime novel but quickly unravels, and while seeming to be simple (the murder of high court judges) it addresses why these killings are happening, rather than who is doing the killing. Which is a smart distinction, and it opens up an ever-expanding problem. It’s a scary read, and there’s a film version by Francesco Rosi called Cadaveri Eccelente that was largely shot in Naples and is superb.

I took a side trip to Naples, thinking I’d write something lighter and quicker than usual, and ended up spending a considerable amount of time there, back and forth, over a couple of years. Whenever I met people, Italians, there would be this groaning realisation that if I was a writer, in Naples, then I’d probably be writing a crime novel or a thriller, and that the city was, and is, overburdened with these narratives. I set the book aside, and once the main story based on the Massive developed (the idea of a city being built in the desert in Iraq, and of focussing on contractors rather than the military) I included “The Kill,” the novel set in Naples, as a private reference. Not a joke exactly, but I didn’t want to let those ideas disappear.

JV: Did you realize after you’d finished The Kills that you might’ve written something that mimicked certain genres but didn’t really fulfill the trope-arc of those genres?

RH: I wanted to play with different kinds of narratives, partly because, as a reader, it sets up an expectation. As a writer it is hugely interesting to twist and articulate, and also frustrate those expectations. I’m a big fan of Wilkie Collins The Moonstone because almost too much is happening, it’s uncategorisable because it acknowledges different expectations — it’s a penny-thriller, a heist (sort of), a ghost story, a romance, a story divided between narrators and forms. Big fun. Thrillers and crime novels are also populated by different kinds of characters, which is for me their main pleasure. Mainstream literature can tend towards normalization — even when characters aren’t straight and white, they might as well be for all of the values represented. While thrillers and crime novels tend to freak difference and can be hugely problematic in how they stereotype (particularly women), they also show difference. I might not like some of the gay characters I read in crime novels, but once in a while there will be some humane, amazing character that I just won’t find anywhere else. I think I’m mimicking that kind of inclusion. I hope that those smaller characters (particularly in “The Kill”) matter. Part of how I worked their stories is that you’re engaged with a character only when and where they intersect the main narrative — more or less.

This might not be right, but when I read a thriller the characters, in some ways, fit the narrative, they work within that world, so much so that you’re right in that world with them, but they are clearly constructions. I’m aiming for that. There’s a real pleasure for me in seeing the artifice of something while you are also involved within it. A performer, Nancy Forrest Brown, used to perform these events where she would inhabit these characters, which was a kind of a drag act in a way. You’d be aware that this character was Nancy, but also, simultaneously, this character. I love that fluctuation. Fiction does that for me. Fake and real at the same time. Genre writing excels in this.

In terms of structure, I think readers are, or can be, highly sophisticated. As soon as a story starts we’re already working on the middle and the ending — and while we progress through a book tiny modifications or clarifications are happening to that overall plan. I prefer works which mess with this, and articulate themselves in unanticipated ways. Not fulfilling a genre’s expectation is going to frustrate a reader, and in some ways I take it for granted that a reader can complete a story arc without it needing to be spelled out. I have a particular dislike of being instructed, of being told how everything works, how I should feel, how I should think. Closure is an artifice, and it’s also the point where a writer can display their moral position or a neatly packaged world view — which is almost always problematic. I don’t read to be instructed, I read to discover and debate and to be challenged.

JV: Did you think that you were writing something metafictional just because a text embedded in your narrative replicates itself in people’s minds? I don’t personally see the novel as metafictional, but that might just be my world view intruding.

RH: Good question. There are certain pleasures here, some quotes from other writers that I love — in many senses the book is a map of writing that I value. There’s Sciascia, Highsmith, a bunch of others I forget. What I enjoyed in writing The Kills is that I’d given myself something huge to work across, and that some ideas could be re-articulated, and that other ideas could be set and returned to many hundreds of pages later. It’s tricky, because I’d like to set up a narrative where some associations or links are explicit, and others are implicit, without impeding the story. It would make me very happy if a reader started to make connections I hadn’t intended. I wanted to set up that potential. When I think about events in my own past I often have realizations — ‘oh, ok, that meant such and such,’ — notions which you revisit, revise, there’s the potential for this in a long-form narrative.

JV: There’s the novel in your head and then the novel on the page, and then the novel in the reader’s head. Have readers, generally, gotten what you were going for? The novel tends to keep making you re-evaluate how to read it from section to section.

RH: I have to be totally honest. Most discussions, frustratingly, are about the book’s size. It takes a certain temperament and intention to take on. We’re all watching that “% of pages read” progress bar on the kindle or iPad, which turns a novel into a challenge, not an experience, and takes out all of the pleasure. I’ve had a few people ask what happened to Eric, or Sutler, or Lila, and I love the idea that this question means that they could push the stories further for themselves.

I wanted a book that was packed with ideas and invention, without being too cumbersome. I also wanted a book which shifts in direction and has a logic that assembles itself as you read. I think I achieved that.

JV: What’s been the most interesting reader or reviewer response?

RH: A great deal of writing is about process, and about finding your way, so reviews are useful in helping me reflect back on what I’ve done. I think I was a little stunned once it was finished, so any kind of discussion helps me gain perspective, and I’m very grateful for that. It’s a scary prospect putting out something so huge and so involved. The book has received some passionate and particular support. As a very general rule, people who read a hell of a lot tend to get the overall project. People who don’t tend to read a huge amount think, erm, well, what kind of a thriller is this? Which makes the book a tough proposal. It makes me unspeakably happy when someone does get it. Some reviewers have asked questions about genre, which has been hugely productive for me to consider.

A good number of people think I invented the burn pits. Which sadly exist, and have caused ongoing health problems, perhaps even some deaths.

JV: Did Sutler make it out?

RH: No. I think not. You know that frozen man, Otzi…